Better Days

They went through hell in Mogadishu. But for 17-year-old Mohamed Abdullahi and other Somali immigrants, in Minneapolis it's still an uphill climb.

The first time he saw someone murdered, Mohamed Abdullahi was seven. It happened on a road outside Mogadishu, on New Year's Day of 1991. He was walking beside his mother, who had his little sister on her back and his younger brother clinging to her leg. A man was stopped by militiamen who asked his clan affiliation, then sent him on his way. "And as he walks away, this dude takes an AK-47 and shoots him," Mohamed recounts. "He fell down, and I just ran."

Life was simple before the civil war in Somalia, says Mohamed, who is now 17. His father was a physician who worked at the police hospital in the capital city of Mogadishu. His mother's father, also a doctor, practiced at Mogadishu's huge Digfer Hospital. The family lived in a house in the Medina district near the airport, on a street that at one time was named after his mother's grandfather, who had pioneered a method of storing precious water in the city.

At three o'clock one morning near the end of December 1990, Mohamed and his siblings awoke to the sound of gunfire. The civil war to topple the 22-year dictatorship of Somali Pres. Mohamed Siad Barre had begun in earnest. When rebel soldiers sprayed their house with bullets, the family took cover under their beds. Mohamed's father, who, like Siad Barre, was a member of the Daroud clan, fled to the hospital that morning and then went into hiding; Mohamed wouldn't see him again for six years. The next day the boy was nearly killed by mortar fire when he went out to the faucet to wash before praying.

That was enough for his mother, who packed everyone up and left so quickly that Mohamed's brother didn't have time to find his shoes. The two boys traded Mohamed's pair back and forth on their 20-mile trek to a friend's home. A couple of weeks later, shortly before Siad Barre abdicated office on January 26, 1991, the family returned home. But as the clans that had united against Siad Barre battled for control of the government, thousands of nomadic warriors converged on Mogadishu, plunging it into a state of anarchy from which it has yet to emerge completely.

While Mohamed's father is Daroud, his mother, Faisa Ali, and her extended family are Benadiri, a people who identify themselves less by tribe affiliation than locality--specifically, the coastal urban areas in and around Mogadishu. Originally non-African, the Benadiri began coming to what is now Somalia as seafarers from the Arabian Peninsula during the Seventh Century. Because of their Arabic and Persian roots, they are lighter-skinned than most Somalis, and they still speak the country's common language with a slight accent. Where the vast majority of Somalis are nomadic, agriculture-oriented people, the Benadiri have traditionally been commercial traders, fishermen, and artisans. The antithesis of nomads, they have been concentrated in and around what is now Mogadishu since the 12th Century, living and worshiping in the same stone residences and mosques.

Wealthy landowners, unarmed and unaligned with any of the warring Somali subclans--in retrospect it's easy to see how vulnerable the Benadiri were when the warlords and freelance bandits overran Mogadishu. But as Abdullahi's family hiked home in early 1991, they had little idea of what they were getting into. Faisa's father, who arose at five every morning to get a head start on treating the wounded, came home one day naked and crying. A gunman had stopped him on the street and demanded money; when he had none to hand over, the man ordered him to strip and stole his clothes. A few weeks later Mohamed's aunt was raped at home by four men. Her 100-year-old grandmother was rousted from her bed by armed men who demanded money. His younger brother went outside one day to find three corpses lying in the yard. As the war dragged on into 1992, famine struck. At one point the family went five days without water, waiting for rain.

Belatedly responding to the carnage in Somalia, the United Nations sent in troops in 1992, including a substantial U.S. contingent of soldiers and armaments. In hindsight this initial post-Cold War attempt at "nation-building" is widely viewed as disastrous. U.N. forces eventually pulled out, having failed to restore order. Mohamed himself was nearly killed while studying at a religious center four blocks from his home when the place was caught in the middle of a skirmish between Somalis and American troops. "American helicopters were up there shooting everything that moved," he remembers. "I ran into this place that was bombed up and, like, broken down, and this dude pulled me in and threw me under a rock and said, 'Get under there and you'll be safe.'"

Early in 1993, after two years of anarchy, Faisa made the decision to head for a refugee camp in Kenya. Two more years would pass before the family arrived in the United States. When Mohamed Abdullahi came to Minneapolis in April 1995, he was 12 years old.

 

It's generally acknowledged that the Twin Cities is home to more Somali immigrants than any other place in North America, and the local population is growing every day. An actual number is hard to pin down, though; statewide estimates range from 15,000 to 75,000, depending upon whom you ask. Government agencies favor the low range, while social-service organizations guess higher.

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